Book review: Managing Generation Y

Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y

By Bruce Tulgan

(Jossey-Bass, $29.95)

I had a flashback during a meeting the other day.

Back to the early days of my career when I was told to dial down the enthusiasm at work. To avoid starting every sentence with "what if" and "how about."

To be respectful, deferential and heed the wisdom of elders. To stop swinging for a home run with every trip to the plate. To think before speaking and soften the edges. To not bend, break or rewrite every rule. To colour between the lines. To sit quietly, listen attentively and take notes. And to realize that when senior execs wrap up meetings by asking if anyone has anything to add, it's a rhetorical question, a cue to bring the party to a quick close and not an open invitation to serve up yet another big idea.

With experience and a few scars at the midpoint of a pretty cool career, I've finally learned when to turn down and crank up the dial. When to go along to get along. When to swing for the fences and when to settle for a base hit. When to listen, when to pretend to listen and when to speak out and step up.

So back to the meeting. There were a bunch of baby boomers, a couple Gen Xers and a few 20-somethings around the table. And when the meeting wound down and the rhetorical question got asked, up went the hand from the Generation Y poster child and out came the questions and big ideas. And while some of us in the room silently cursed the breaking of the unwritten rule and thought the rookie had overstepped, I had my flashback, thought the kids are all right and knew that our future's in good hands.

Author Bruce Tulgan advises employers on how to work with Generation Y, a generation with the potential to be the most high-performing workforce in history. Born between 1978 and 2000, this generation of workers is eager to hit the ground running, tackle and solve big problems and add real value. They're collaborative, confident and self-possessed, even when the rest of us have no clue what's going.

Yet as many managers and employers will tell you, this high-performing cohort may also prove to be the most high-maintenance workforce we've ever seen. Tween and teen precociousness is continuing well into adulthood and carrying into the workplace. With Gen Y, Tulgan says 30 is the new 20 and we have overinvolved, helicopter parents to thank.

"Every step of the way, Gen Yers' parents have guided, directed, supported, coached and protected them. Gen Yers have been respected, nurtured, scheduled, measured, discussed, diagnosed, medicated, programmed, accommodated, included, awarded and rewarded as long as they can remember."

If you think managing Gen Yers and putting up with the attitude and precociousness isn't worth the effort, take a good look around the office and shop floor. The recession may have created a buyer's market for talent, but it hasn't stopped time. With each passing day and hour, all those baby boomers move ever closer to retirement (many already are). There aren't enough of us Gen Xers to go around, so be prepared for a massive influx of Generation Y.

To lock in the best and brightest of this generation, smart employers are revisiting, reviewing and revising how they hire and train new employees. Contrary to popular belief, Gen Yers aren't disloyal and unwilling to make real commitments to their employees.

"They can be very loyal," says Tulgan. "But they don't exhibit the kind of loyalty you find in a kingdom: blind loyalty to hierarchy, tight observance of rites of passage, patience for recognition and rewards."

Instead, Generation Y offers free-market, just-in-time transactional loyalty, the same kind of loyalty you have with customers and clients.

The ideal job for Gen Yers is what Tulgan calls a self-building job. This is a generation that's looking to make an impact while building themselves up with the experiences and resources that you can offer. They want to learn, grow and collect proof along the way that their ability adds value. Once you've met the threshold of competitive salaries and wages, Gen Yers care about flexible schedules, relationships, task choice, learning opportunities and location.

Tulgan tells employers that the most important day for 20-somethings is their first day on the job. Treat Day 1 like you're planning your kid's birthday. No, you don't need balloons, cake and a clown. Just greet your new hires and get them engaged. Don't park them in a cubicle and bury them with busy work so they'll stay out of the way and let you get your work done. And shipping new hires off for two long days of induction by PowerPoint guarantees disengagement.

"If it takes you months or years to get Gen Yers up to speed and into meaningful roles on your team, then you'll have serious problems keeping high-potential Gen Yers engaged and growing," says Tulgan. "Don't tell me you are struggling to manage and retain the best Gen Yers and then tell me it's going to take months or years before they can do important work."

Tulgan also recommends practicing what he coins "in loco parentis" management. "You can't fight the overparenting phenomenon, so run with it. Your Gen Y employees want it. They need it. Without strong management, there is a void where their parents have always been." So show your 20-somethings that you care. Give them boundaries and structure.

"Yes, Generation Y will be more difficult to recruit, retain, motivate and manage than any other new generation to enter the workforce," says Tulgan.

"But this will also be the most high-performing workforce in history for those who know how to manage them properly."

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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